Thursday, February 15, 2007

How do Rural Church Folks Spell Love?


A new blog friend and frequent commenter, Heather, posed a question in the comment thread in my last post. I think it deserves attention. She simply asked, I'd enjoy hearing hear about how you lead your people to be a loving church (or how the Lord is guiding you in that direction)!

One simple caveat: the things I do, I do not not prescribe as normative for every ministry. The things that I do, though very simple, are what work in the context of ministry in which I serve.

Once while preaching on parenting I talked about spending time with my children. I made the point that my children really do not care what I do with them, just as long as I spend a long time doing it. Once is never enough with them, and to quote my father-in-law, if once is good, fifty times has to be better.

I discovered that principle in ministry to rural church folks as well. While studying in seminary, the pastoral ministry professor taught a lot of simple principles. These were inculcated and erroneously filed away as normative. Don't sit on the bed when making hospital visits; visit, and give the impression that you will stay a while, but only stay a few minutes; follow-up once on sick and surgery patients; never give a gift to a church member.

Many of these principles were taught in the interest of good time management. However, life moves a lot slower in the hay fields of Virginia. I discovered that visitation is important. Granted, it gets tiresome and there is only so much visiting I can do before I tire of it and I am ready to do more proactive ministry.

Yet, when handled appropriately, visitation can be proactive. Most folks, especially the aged, enjoy a visit from their pastor. When I go, I plan on staying at least an hour; I stay longer yet I visit less. Relationships are not built in a few moments but over time. How do you get to know somebody you do not talk to? So, to leave after only a few minutes is seen as an insult; the visit is interpreted as condescending patronization.

Therefore, I try to take advantage of the time. A good pastor friend calls these kinds of visits "tea and crumpet" visits; but I see the inherent value in them. I turn the visit to spiritual discussions. I ask simple, probing questions, such as, "What has God been teaching you lately? Has any passage of Scripture stuck in your mind recently? How can I pray for you and your family?" These questions always lead to sharing about family struggles and perfect opportunities for discipleship. It leads the discussion to biblical solutions for problems, examples to uphold and prescribe, and sometimes, revealing of sin.

These days time is a precious commodity. In these days when communications are instantaneous, drive-thru windows are the norm, what's new is hot, and the old is not quite so good anymore, there remains a place for visitation. Relationships have eternal consequences and most of the time, the fruits of those visits are not seen. Time and time again, I have proven Jim Elliff's words true. In the article I referenced last post, The Rural Church Dilemma, he says of the lack of "visibility" in rural church ministry:
Remember that you are entirely unaware of the impact of your ministry. For instance, you may teach older adults without much visible impact. But one of them, perhaps a grandparent of an unconverted child, may receive stimulus from your ministry that makes her a true witness to her grandchild. Her witness, prompted by your stimulus and instruction, may be the very thing God uses to bring that child to Him. She may not even be aware of her impact. In fact, it may not come to bear until after she has passed on. The grandchild, in time, may one day marry a believer and raise up children who also become believers in another part of America. Do you really know what that will mean in terms of eternity? Do you know what it means in terms of generations of believers? What if, three generations down the line, one of the Christians in this line is instrumental in the evangelization of an unreached tribal group? Did you see that when you taught that grandparent on a sleepy Sunday morning? Likely not. Don't forget that Jesus said, "I will build my church." The time you taught that grandparent might be far more instrumental in the building of the universal church than ten years of ministry in some large city church with all its innovations and activities. You cannot know how God will work for sure, yet you can be confident that it would be a total surprise to you how significant your labors are. Therefore, "sow in hope."
This is what I do; I "sow in hope." Serving a church with a regular attendance of about 85, I thankfully know a little bit about every person in our church. Mega-church pastors, even mid-sized church pastors, cannot say that.

More posts on this topic forthcoming...


Heather said...

Tony -

Thanks so much for posting this and I look forward to more to come. As you know Brandon is a pastor in our church and we are in a large metropolitan area (Atlanta). We are currently in a season of the Lord stripping away everything but Him in order for our ministry to be most effective. Your post is so inspiring ... thank you for including the quote from the book because it really spoke to my heart. Here in the city we just go, go, go and people expect programs and activities and, honestly, there's not a lot of discipleship (almost anywhere you go) for that reason. But it's of the utmost importance and we are currently seeking (among many other things) how best to make disciples within our own church and community.

This post reminds me that people are what is important. That's something the Lord has been showing me a lot lately. Thanks again!


Geoff Baggett said...

Good words, Tony.
My church is now running about 250 on Sunday mornings, and already I can't keep up with everyone. There are now some I know little about. I have very few senior adults, but I invest greatly in those I do have. But, for sure, the younger generation (40 and under) seem not to put so much emphasis upon the "visit." More and more, they seem to prefer a phone call or even an e-mail to check in with them. Are you noticing that?

Tony said...


Honestly, the more I plan on doing, the less folks tend to get involved. It has the opposite effect on rural folks. I may take your thoughts in this comment and run with it for my next post...thanks!


I'll tell you something you might find strange. Out here, the younger folks do enjoy a visit, but email tends to be their preferred method of communication. I do find though that when I am good to their aged parents and grandparents, its as if I have ministered unto them.

I call it indirect discipleship (I know it isn't really), but it makes inroads to get near them and effect deeper relationships with Christ. They are thankful I spent time with their parents and grandparents and it typically means a lot to them. I know it is not without its problems, but sometimes that is as close as I can get to the younger generation (and I'm part of it!).

Alan Knox said...


This is a great post. I've also had someone teach me how to "visit" in only 15 minutes. That is a lesson that I did not learn.

Have you thought of inviting another person, or even another family, to go along with you when you visit people? Do you also invite people into your home, or do you visit primarily in their homes?


Tony said...


Thanks for commenting. I appreciate the encouraging words!

I do several different things when I visit. I take my children with me fairly frequently, especially to the nursing home. Once a month I take a group from our church to visit the nursing home residents.

We also have families in our home, usually for meals and that always lends itself to quality discipleship time. Say for instance a family is having difficulties of some description, I invite them over for fellowship, prayer, and a meal.

I also have what I call a "widow's lunch" (don't tell the widows that!). About once a month I will have several of the widows over for a fellowship lunch and prayer time.

But, I have not thought about you other excellent suggestion about having families visit together. The only thing I could see prohibiting that being regularly incorporated into the ministry out here is time constraints and scheduling conflicts. As Geoff has testified in his earlier comment, the younger families would much rather get an email. I am working to overcome that kind of isolationism.

Again, Alan, thanks for the good words.

Tim A. Blankenship said...

I greatly appreciated this article. I grew up in a rural church - a small in number congregation - but have had several great pastors.
Though I have pastored churches now for over twenty years, I still do not do or know enough about it.
You are correct that the people in rural areas enjoy the pastor's visit. There are times i enjoy them too, and there are times i do not.

Tony said...

Brother Tim,

Thanks for the good words. Some folks don't want a visit and I respect that. It makes me more thankful and excited to see them out in the community, the store, or at fellowhips to try to build those relationships. Some people are hard to get close to so it takes more work. I enjoy it, though.

I appreciate your ministry and have learned a lot about your heart from your blog as a "junior pastor." It has been a blessing.

Cameron Cloud said...

Reading your last couple of posts have been a blessing. Among other things we have in common, we both pastor Baptist churches of similar size in rural Virginia! :)

I appreciate a pastor who has a heart for his people, is not obssessed with "growing" the church, and sees the potential in a country church.

It would take a full post to say all that is in my heart about the subject, but to keep it simple, I agree wholeheartedly with this philosophy of ministry.

God give us more "shepherds" and fewer "CEOs."

Tony said...


Thanks! Maybe our paths will cross one day.

Growth is a potential in a country church as long as you don't get hung up on numbers. I would like to see a post or two on your thoughts on rural church ministry. I plan on a few more.

Your concluding sentence is a prayer I often pray for me and my brothers in ministry.

Gordon Cloud said...

Great post, Tony. I am just catching up after a busy week but I was blessed by this.

You are exactly right. Rural folks (which I have the privilege of pastoring) set a lot of store by a visit from their pastor. I have picked up pecans, shelled peas, chased cows and many other farm-related activities to build relationships with the people I serve.

This may be a cliche, but people don't care how much you know until they know how much you care.

Thanks again for a great post.

Tony said...


I find myself in the same situations. I have stringed (is that right? or strung?) beans, shelled butter peas, fed cows, and chopped wood.

Beats sitting in committee meetings.